John Stott was an evangelical leader, and one who bore the name well. His passing last week has spurred a number of blogs and articles reflecting on his work as a minister. Among these is an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof which I felt important to share with the FLP community.
Kristoff highlights the “distaste” often inspired by the title evangelical Christian, pointing to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as examples of the self-righteousness that has soured the evangelical name. On the other hand, Kristoff identifies Rev. Stott as gentle and intellectual, an evangelical who coupled his preaching of the gospel with compassionate acts and concern for the suffering. Furthermore, Kristoff recognizes this quality in “some of the bravest people you meet” at the “front lines” of major humanitarian efforts.
It seems what Kristoff is observing is an age-old pattern.
When Jesus walked the earth, as described in the New Testament (specifically the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), a similar polarity could be observed in the religious culture. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law practiced self-righteous piety; Jesus practiced love.
Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic, the Pharisees called it blasphemy. Jesus healed a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees plotted to kill him. Jesus built relationships with “tax collectors and sinners,” the Pharisees questioned his actions.
The Pharisees fasted to demonstrate their piety, but never seemed to understand compassion. Caught up in their own self-righteousness, they were repeatedly looking to accuse Jesus and his followers of wrongdoing. Jesus even warned his followers of their teaching. But the difficulty of Phariseeism is that it was a subtle danger – they had become so obsessed with the religious Law that they missed identifying the one to whom the Law pointed.
Is this what Kristoff is observing in today’s society? It sounds familiar: the compassionate and the self-righteous. Jesus and the Pharisees. The Stotts and the Falwells?
Every time I encounter an evangelical who is compelled to “preach the message” through criticism, especially when that criticism elevates that “evangelical” in self-righteousness, I think back to the life of Christ: service, storytelling, and relationships. When Jesus used strong words – when Jesus was critical – it wasn’t to condemn the broken for their immorality. It was to confront the Pharisees about their self-righteousness (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 23:27).
This is important to our discussion at Faith Line Protestants. Phariseeism isn’t compatible with the interfaith movement. What is compatible is service through compassion, humility and relationships.
Jesus didn’t come to say that the 9/11 attacks were punishment for American’s immorality or that AIDS is God’s judgment on promiscuity. He came to grant forgiveness to the immoral, offer completeness to the promiscuous, and to provide freedom from sin. After all, it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.